Boulud Sud’s Executive Chef Travis Swikard on His New Dinner Series, Working with Daniel, and Moving Up the Kitchen Food Chain
At just 30 years of age, Executive Chef Travis Swikard is already a young veteran of the Daniel Boulud empire, having spent five years with the company here in New York City, first at Café Boulud under Executive Chef Gavin Kaysen and now at Boulud Sud, where he was promoted to Executive Chef in the fall. On Monday night, Travis introduced a Voyage Dinner Series through which he’ll present the cuisine of a different Mediterranean country or region one night each month. This week explored Israel and the next three dinners will serve up Greece (Monday, May 12); Sicily (Monday, June 16); and the Côte d’Azur (Monday, July 14). All dinners are at 7pm and the cost is $95 per person, exclusive of tax and gratuity. Tickets are available at events.danielboulud.com.
We sat down with Travis the morning after the Israeli dinner this week to discuss his career, and the series:
TOQUELAND: How did you first get interested in cooking?
SWIKARD: I grew up in between my parents’ houses. I lived with my mom most of the time and my dad every other weekend. My dad was a really good cook. I loved to cook with him and cook for my family. I think I was four years old, five years old and my dad was making a steak Diane in the house and he put the cognac in the pan and almost blew up the house. I looked at him and I said, “I want to be a chef.”
How did you start cooking professionally?
I started cooking in a kitchen when I was fifteen-years old. I was working at a sushi restaurant in San Diego. I’d go in every morning before school and make all the sushi for the display case, then go to high school, do all my work, come back after school and set up the sushi dish again. After that I started working at Deborah Scott’s Kemo Sabe restaurant in San Diego when I was eighteen-years old. It was a fusion restaurant.
When I was nineteen, I was looking around at what other chefs were doing in San Diego. On my days off I’d trail at restaurants. I had met them at the farmer’s market. I started working for a chef named Jason Seibert on the weekends at his place called Cafe Cerise. I went to watch Jason do a competition and he was competing against Gavin Kaysen. When Gavin came to San Diego when he was twenty-four-years old, my dad had showed me the newspaper: “Look at this kid … “
What struck him? That he was so young?
It was the front page of the dining section. I don’t know how Gavin does this stuff. It’s amazing. So I just walked up to Gavin. “Can I come and do a trail with you?” He said, “Yeah, of course.” I did a trail at the place he was working at in San Diego, the Rancho Bernardo Inn, and then became friends and he became a mentor of mine.
Gavin sent me to the New England Culinary Institute and then sent me to go work in a place just outside of London for a while. And then when I came back to the States, Gavin was the chef at Cafe Boulud and he said, “Come down and help me build my team here at Cafe Boulud.” So I came to New York City.
I was intimidated: I had a sous chef at one of the restaurants where I worked in San Diego that had tried to work for Daniel and he didn’t cut it.
You mean he had gotten the gig and had to ring the bell and resign?
Yeah. So I was intimidated. Same thing with Thomas Keller. I always thought of them as the kings. I told Gavin, “I’m probably going to faint when I meet this guy.”
What was your first meeting like? You came in as what? Garde manger?
I came in as garde manger. As Daniel normally does, he walks in the kitchen, goes around to everybody’s station, tastes the food. He came over and he was at my refrigerator. He’s like, [intimidating Daniel] “Uh‑huh. Okay. Yeah. How’s this? Okay. Yeah.” Then he said, “Oh, who are you?” I said, “I’m Travis, Chef.” He said, “You having fun?”
“Are you having fun?” Did that surprise you?
He was so calm about it. I didn’t even know what to say because I had so much respect for him.
How did you get from there to here?
Aaron Chambers was chef here before. I was a tournant [a floater capable of working any station] in the Café; Aaron was executive sous chef. I told Gavin I want to see something else before my time was up in New York City. I really wanted to experience something different. At the time I was looking at Per Se and a couple of other restaurants but I really wanted to stay with Daniel. And then an opportunity arose when Aaron was leaving [to open Boulud Sud]. Gavin said, “You can stay here as a sous chef or you can go open up this new restaurant as a sous chef.” I said, “New restaurant, one hundred percent.”
For me it’s always been about the business side of things, about how much I can learn for when I want to open my own restaurant. That was the most important part of the opportunity for me. I opened two restaurants in San Diego and opening a third restaurant with Daniel, it’s priceless. What I learned from soup to nuts, from the kitchen side, and also the numbers side.
So you were here for a while and then you got the nod that you were going to become the executive chef here. What was that moment like? How did it happen? You were pretty young.
I had worked with Daniel for five years at that point. And I’d definitely been pushing him. I’d been telling him, “I want something more. I need to grow.” I’ve always been head down and nose to the floor, push, push, push. I built my team here from the ground up. Literally everybody that’s on my hot line now, even my garde manger and one of my sous chefs started on garde manger here.
It was amazing to me because I texted him that I wanted to sit down and talk. Daniel came on a Sunday afternoon and sat with me in the dining room for two and a half hours and talked to me about who I am, who I want to be, where I want to go with my life, talking about my family, as a great mentor would. He brought himself down to my level.
Did you expect that kind of thing from him or was that surprising?
It was surprising to me in the beginning but now I won’t ever hesitate. Even if I have questions about being a father, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call him.
What did you want to do when you took over as chef de cuisine here?
For me it was important to spend a little more time in the dining room, welcome our guests. I really like interactive service so I started really promoting that with our food. When a guest sits down, the server is almost prompted to speak with them right away about my passion for the food and what we’re doing at that time on that day, why it’s special. That was very important to me, I really like interacting with people.
Is it a natural thing for you?
For me the best thing is when people sit down to make them feel like they’re in your home and you’re cooking for them. How else do you do that? The host comes out and speaks. I want that feeling for everybody. When I was a kid and the chef would come out and talk to my dad, it felt really special.
What’s been the hardest part of the learning curve for you as you’ve moved up from garde manger to sous chef to executive chef?
One thing has been restraining myself, and not trying to take on too much …
Yeah, delegating is a huge thing because I’m always a yes guy. If someone calls on a Saturday night and we’re fully booked and they want a 12‑top, I always want to say yes. Now it’s more, “Okay, how do I say yes and make everyone else happy, too.” Learning all of that. Also, when you grow fast, it’s hard to capture everyone’s respect at that same time. So it’s really taken a lot for me to stay humble. Not too many chefs come to work at 9 a.m. and put a knife on a cutting board every day and work fourteen, fifteen hours a day. My knives are the sharpest knives in the kitchen. It speaks to who I am. Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing right now but it’s just who I am.
Do friends tell you not to do that?
I mean, my friends are chefs at Per Se, The French Laundry.
So they’re pretty much like you?
They work, yeah.
Do you find it hard to hold onto that?
For me, the biggest thing is if one of my cooks works for me for three years and they walk out of my restaurant and they go work for, say, Jean-Georges, I want them to represent me when they walk out of here. If I don’t show them how to do things while they’re here, how to do them correctly the way I was taught to do them, why the hell are they here? Why are they investing their time? I always look at my cooks as though they’re making an investment in me. They’re not making great money. I didn’t make good money. I know what it’s like to be a cook. I try to give them everything I have and show them, teach them. As I’m learning, I teach them more. I really try to make it so that I’m learning constantly, always reading and building things. And as I learn I bring it into the kitchen. The guys can see me make an amazing dish and they also see me fail sometimes.
It’s been great for me learning with my team and coaching them. I played football when I was in high school so I’m all about the team, being the coach.
The team that I was with at Cafe Boulud when Gavin was the chef: Aaron was the executive sous chef; he’s going to be the chef at Bar Boulud in Boston when it opens in September. I’m the chef here. Ricardo is the chef at Maison Boulud in Montreal. We’re all chefs at Daniel’s restaurants.
You’d like to have that kind of track record for your team?
Oh, yeah. And even if we don’t grow fast enough to where my guys take over something, I want them to be very successful. My parents told me, “Follow your dreams.” I’m going to get you to your dreams. If you have a dream, let’s do it. I feel like it’s very important.
Let’s talk about the Voyage Dinner Series. How did it come about?
Our menu’s all over the Mediterranean, and I really dive deep into these cuisines and learn so much about a huge cuisine to put just one dish on the menu. I wanted the opportunity to open the door to one cuisine at a time. I want to make a family‑style meal where people can sit around and feel like they’re at a dinner table in Greece, enjoying dinner with their family with a bunch of food on the table. I’m so excited about it. At the Israeli dinner, I gave them way too much food but that was me being restrained because there’s so much I wanted to do.
That’s the hospitality gene, right? That’s the chef gene.
I wanted to do so much more but it was, like, these people are going to die if I give them all this food.
How did you go about it? For the different countries and regions, did you hit the books? Or what did you do?
A lot of books. I mean, I read everything. I have a hundred cookbooks back in the kitchen. I have about a thousand at my house. There were a lot of books but also just talking to friends, talking to people that are from Israel for the first dinner. I called Michael Shvo, who’s the real estate guy here in the city. His brother has a winery. He’s always talking about Israeli food. So I talked to him. I used to have a cook here who was from Tel Aviv. Sometimes he’d make a family meal for us and I thought, “Wow, this is incredible.” I have a cook here who’s from Greece and sometimes for specials he’ll make food that his grandma used to make . You taste the soul in the food.
Did you have any of these people taste test your dishes to make sure they were authentic? Or did you go to some restaurants around town to taste so you’d have a baseline?
How else did you ensure that you were nailing it?
Last night for the Israeli dinner, one of my cooks just got back from her birthright trip to Israel. So here I am making all this stuff and I said, “Taste this.” She said, “Wow, that’s better than it was there.”
These day, anything goes, right? You could have taken the approach that “this is my version of Israeli food.”
I don’t want to do that.
You’re trying to stay true to the original?
Last night every single person that was here had been to Israel.
Is that right? All forty?
Most of them had just come back from Israel. It’s very important to me for all the dinners that if someone comes here and they’re from, say, Greece, that they’re going to feel like they’re eating at nonna’s table, or hopefully better. I don’t care if it’s rustic food. That’s fine. But it’s important that the flavors are there and that the aroma’s there and you are transported through the food.